Farm Productivity Slide Can Be Reversed, Researcher Fresco Says

Slowing output gains in farming are due to under-investment and can be reversed, said Louise Fresco, a University of Amsterdam professor and former deputy director general at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Following are comments she made at the “Feeding the World” meeting organized by Economist Conferences in Geneva yesterday.

“The productivity decline that we see today is very much a function of under-investment in agriculture and political neglect. However, agriculture is back on the agenda. The productivity decline can be reversed quite easily.”

Improved seeds, pest and disease control, better use of the soil can all help. “There is no doubt in my mind that we can bridge the yield gap. The yields for many farmers in Africa, in sorghum, for example, are the same as they were for cereals in the Middle Ages in Europe.”

“A large part of the production increase will still have to come from the temperate areas, that’s where the good soils are.”

South American agriculture requires a focus on “managing the use of fertilizer and water and pesticides,” Fresco said. “About a third of the fertilizer used today is wasted, the same applies for water and maybe even more for pesticides.”

“No small farmer wants to remain a small farmer; farmers want to grow. You must give these 400 million the opportunity to grow. What they need is to be able to manage the stability of their production.

‘‘All countries that have moved up on the welfare ladder have invested in agriculture. Improving agricultural productivity is a way to lift the poor out of poverty.’’

‘‘All farmers are being squeezed by the two blocs that are forming. On the one hand the big input companies. On the other hand, the retail and the food industry, who are engaged in a battle for cheap ingredients. And the farmer is being squeezed in the middle.’’

‘‘Most of the research today in agricultural science is very applied stuff. Maybe we should look again at photosynthesis, in making systems more efficient in a very different way. The understanding of how the biology works is going to be one of the main challenges.’’

‘‘We’re not making use of the data that is available. There’s a tremendous agricultural digitalization potential that we should use and that we should invest in.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rudy Ruitenberg in Paris at rruitenberg@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Claudia Carpenter at ccarpenter2@bloomberg.net.

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